Last Christmas, my father bought my 12-year-old son a set of poker chips. I have no idea what took him so long. They’ve been playing together since Liam was five, and from the time that first waterfall of coins hit the middle of our kitchen table he was hooked. He loves watching my mother shuffle the cards at lightening speed, like she’s flicking the pages of a paperback, and never fails to laugh when my father shakes the dice in cupped hands and shouts, ‘hotcha, baby needs a new pair of shoes.’
My parents live interstate but every time they visit we play poker after dinner. We’ve taken to spreading out a tablecloth to protect the wood from further scratching, we use chips now rather than coins, and Grandpa’s no longer allowed to drink heavy reds, but essentially the ritual has remained the same for years. Texas Hold Em has made poker widely popular in the past few years, and while my father and spouse have both tried their hands at it on the web, it doesn’t rate at our table. We play five card stud, blackjack, pass three, and a game my father assures us he didn’t make up called Chinese chickenpoop. We sit in the same seats every time we play.
My son wins our poker tournaments consistently. It is legend in our family that he has a lucky star above his head. We’re not letting him win – we’re all too competitive to do that – but he wins and wins. I’ve been playing poker most of my life but I’m nowhere near as skilled, or blessed, as he is. His seemingly endless run of luck has occasioned many discussions about statistical probability, a higher power, destiny, predetermination.
Until last week, I’d always mentioned our tradition, and my son’s prowess, with some fondness. Playing poker is one of the ways our family bonds. I like to look around the table and see the people I love enjoying a shared pursuit. I enjoy the opportunity it affords us to talk to one another. My father isn’t one to discuss his past but sometimes when we’re sipping our drinks, snacking on nuts, sorting our cards, listening to whatever Miles Davis or John Coltrane CD he’s put on, he’ll share some snippet of his childhood.
My dad grew up in Watts, a suburb of southern Los Angeles renowned (if that’s the right word) for the race riots that set flame to the area in 1965. There weren’t many white people in his street. His best friend and childhood neighbour, my godfather Jaime, is Mexican. Nobody in his world had much money. My father’s reluctance to talk about his childhood is borne of a complex mix of embarrassment, hurt, fierce pride, the pain of raw memories, and the belief that some things are best left alone. But my son is always up for tales of life in the olden days, though he’s clearly sceptical that kids would ever have played anything as lame sounding as kick-the-can or that they’d be allowed to wander the streets till nightfall. He likes to hear how Grandpa once got stabbed, how his dad moved from a farm in Wichita to the big smoke where he worked as a greyhound bus driver till he died of a brain tumour, how his mother checked lids on an assembly line in a Coke-a-Cola factory. Sometimes my father will try to teach Liam the Spanish words for the things around the room or share a more recent story about sailing in wild seas that will have my mother muttering darkly and shaking her head. All good, I thought. Family time. And when other people join in, as they often do, that’s fun too.
But last week, when a girlfriend asked about our family Christmas traditions and I mentioned that a poker marathon was in store she reeled back in horror. ‘Your parents taught your son how to gamble?’ she said. ‘That’s appalling.’ Turns out, grandparents are supposed to share traditions that may include any of the following: baking biscuits, table manners, how to put spin on a cricket ball, sewing, a love of books. But not poker. I explained that my parents had indeed bequeathed these important life skills, that my son has never gambled anywhere but our kitchen, and that my father is not one to frequent casinos. Having said that, he did pay for my mother’s wedding ring by making a quick trip out to Reno, but that was decades ago. And nowadays he only takes a seat at a blackjack table if he finds himself somewhere that has a whiff of James Bond about it. He has no truck with overlit shoppingcentre-type casinos, where the carparks double as childcare centres.
I digress. The point, I said to my friend, is that my father’s patient and thorough tuition has taught Liam a number of valuable skills. He’s learned how to calculate odds (maths), read people’s faces (psychology), remain calm under pressure (bound to make him a gun at business negotiations), and he is master of a wealth of variations on what is, after all, an international game. She disagreed, and while she could see the wholesome value of having the family sit together around a table, insisted my complicity with this activity was intergenerational bad parenting.
I don’t think so. I think, especially at this time of year, anything that families can do as a group that doesn’t occasion yelling, sulking and slammed doors is probably a good thing. I know Liam is looking forward to our nightly games, and that my dad is keen to teach my younger son (who’s just turned five) the rudiments of the game. I have a feeling that if Liam and my father put their minds to it they’ll be able to get him up to speed before Christmas Day. In fact, I’d put money on it.